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Stroud v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

September 19, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff, Joanna Stroud, seeks review of a second unfavorable decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. The Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. An administrative law judge (ALJ) held a hearing on the Plaintiff's application, and on August 21, 2012, the ALJ issued a Decision holding that the Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled under the relevant provisions of the Social Security Act. On December 27, 2013, the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision. The Plaintiff subsequently filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3).

         On August 26, 2015, the Honorable Magistrate Judge John E. Martin issued an opinion and order remanding the case for further proceedings consistent with his opinion. (R. at 658, ECF No. 6.) On March 4, 2016, the Appeals Council sent the case back to the ALJ who, after another administrative hearing held in June 2016, issued a second unfavorable decision on December 6, 2016. The Plaintiff did not request Appeals Council review; therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. The Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Plaintiff was born on February 25, 1959. (R. at 495.) The Plaintiff previously worked as a receptionist and in customer service. (Id.) In this case, the Plaintiff claimed to have become disabled on August 14, 2009. (R. at 485.) She was involved in a serious automobile accident in 1996 where she suffered whiplash and in the following years, experienced primarily neck, shoulder, and arm issues. (R. at 51, 340.) The Plaintiff claims to be disabled due to the severe impairments of cervical spine degenerative disc disease and fibromyalgia. (R. at 487.)


         Disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The first step is to determine whether the claimant no longer engages in substantial gainful activity (SGA). Id. In the case at hand, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset date of disability, and thus, the Plaintiff satisfied the step one inquiry. (R. at 487.)

         In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting the ability to do basic work activities pursuant to § 404.1520(c). Here, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments of cervical spine degenerative disc disease and fibromyalgia were severe impairments because they significantly limited her ability to perform basic work activities. (R. at 487-88.)

         Step three requires the ALJ to “consider the medical severity of [the] impairment” to determine whether the impairment “meets or equals one of [the] listings in appendix 1 . . . .” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment(s), considered singly or in combination with other impairments, rises to this level, she earns a presumption of disability “without considering [her] age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(d). But, if the impairment(s), either singly or in combination, falls short, an ALJ must move to step four and examine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (RFC)-the types of things she can still do physically, despite her limitations-to determine whether she can perform this “past relevant work, ” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), or whether the claimant can “make an adjustment to other work” given the claimant's “age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         In the case at hand, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, do not meet or equal any of the listings in Appendix 1 and that the Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work as defined by § 404.1567(b), with the following exceptions:

the claimant is able to occasionally lift and carry up to 20 pounds and frequently lift and carry up to 10 pounds. The claimant has no limitations in her ability to sit, stand, or walk. The claimant is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant must avoid hazardous environments (an inability to drive as part of her work duties, no operating moving machinery, no work around exposed flames or at unprotected heights, no work around unprotected large bodies of water) and the claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to unguarded hazardous machinery. The claimant must have no static maintenance of her neck other than the neutral position and she must have no repetitive or extreme flexion, extension, or rotation to the right of her neck. The claimant is to have no overhead use of her upper right extremity and no forceful or repetitive gross manipulation with her right hand. The claimant is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks.

(R. at 489.) This RFC decided on remand is identical to the one the ALJ determined in his initial determination. (R. at 22.)

         In arriving at the RFC, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause her alleged symptoms, “however, the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and ...

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